Listen To What The Man Said — The Tao Of Paul McCartney In Ten Songs
These aren’t my favourite ten songs by Paul McCartney. Neither should anyone hasten to the conclusion that I think these are his ten best songs — although, in both cases, the Venn diagram would show a significant overlap. In the aftermath of The Beatles’ break-up, Paul did what he has always done when trying to manage the unprecedented strangeness of his life. The man who repeatedly miniaturised his impact on the world by referring to The Beatles as “a good little rock’n’roll band”, effectively miniaturised his life. While John and George made albums that tackled grand themes, Paul fled to the country, venerated the importance of family and gave us the homespun charms of McCartney and Ram — in the process creating a new paradigm of masculinity in rock’n’roll. Paul created a way of combining family and music, emboldening Linda McCartney into joining his band, and taking their children out onto the road. Far from pretending they didn’t exist, he wrote songs for and about them. He understood that the things that exercise us in our early twenties aren’t necessarily the same things that keep us awake ten or twenty years later. Paul didn’t buy into the notion that happiness is somehow more shallow than misery. At times, his dogged positivity made him a figure of fun. But it’s a long game. And many of us who have allowed Paul’s songs to soak into our bones through the decades can honestly say that, in our everyday lives, we actively try to “walk in the light” (h/t We All Stand Together) as a result of Paul and his music. And so this weekend, as we celebrate the completion of Paul’s eightieth trip around the sun, what the following represents is a case for Paul McCartney as the wisest rock star of his generation. A Paulosophical primer to the mellow genius of Macca.
It seems to me that no Paul McCartney album conveys the essence of the man quite as completely as Band On The Run. With two members of the group quitting on the eve of their departure for Lagos where the songs were to be recorded, Paul took a crisis and turned it into an opportunity. By the end of their time in Lagos — those who did make it onto the plane had endured illness (Paul suffered a serious bronchial spasm and fainted), knifepoint muggings (Paul and Linda had to surrender camera equipment and the sole cassette featuring the original song demos) and scary visits from afrobeat legends suspecting cultural appropriation (Fela Kuti) — in order to create the album that would ensure that whenever people thought of Wings, this would be the classic line-up that people would imagine: Paul, Linda and Denny Laine. And of all the songs on Band On The Run, perhaps none convey the Macca mission statement quite as succinctly as Mamunia. Ostensibly a song about the rain in Los Angeles, Mamunia is really another exhortation to take succour from the bigger picture: “The rain comes falling from the sky/To fill the stream that fills the sea/And that’s where life began for you and me/So the next time you see rain, it rain’t bad/Don’t complain… it rains for you and me.” We see this time and time again with Paul, this dogged determination to throttle something good out of an unpromising situation, most dramatically in the sequence restored by Peter Jackson in Get Back, where Paul’s sheer force of will summons the eponymous song out of the ether. Mamunia comes from the same part of Paul. Its existence is the proof of its own argument.
Let ’Em In
There’s an old English sea shanty called Blow The Man Down that I used to bastardise when I was teaching my daughters how to cross the road safely. Standing at a pedestrian crossing I used to sing, “Where’s the green man Dora?/Where’s the green man?/Where, where, where’s the green man?” Whenever red turned to green, I could just change the “where’s” to a “there’s”, and that would tell us when it was time to cross. I wonder if Let ’Em In came to Paul McCartney in similar circumstances. It’s certainly no great stretch to imagine the song taking shape as mid-70s Macca, babe in arms, improvised those opening lines as he advanced down the hallway: “Someone’s knocking on the door/Somebody’s ringing a bell/Someone’s knocking on the door/Somebody’s ringing a bell/Do me a favour/Open the door/And let ’em in.” Furthermore, I can imagine asking Paul how the song came about and receiving a reply along those lines. And depending on what you choose to believe about the song’s creator, his answer might confirm the simplicity of his outlook or remind you how disingenuous he can be when invited to explain his process to us. Personally, I don’t think these answers are mutually exclusive. The roll call of visitors on Let ’Em In starts with people personally known to Paul — “Brother Michael/Auntie Gin” — before spidering out to take in Martin Luther King and Phil and Don Everly (you might note that their namecheck is delivered in an Everlys-style harmony). The longer you listen to Let ’Em In, the more liminal it feels. I think that’s partly down to the unchanging bass pulse that Paul places to the foreground; it feels like this song could play in perpetuity, lulling you into an altered state. Perhaps the place to which these people are being welcomed is heaven itself; or at the very least, some sort of convivial hereafter. A sort of Good Place version of Hotel California where no-one ever need leave. Let ’Em In is a perfect encapsulation of the belief that everyone has a unique contribution to make. It was deeply resonant in 1976, when when its release coincided with the continuing rise of the National Front and Eric Clapton’s infamous outburst in support of Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration rhetoric. And sadly — in a week where headlines have been dominated by the Government’s forcible relocation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, it’s no less resonant now.
We All Stand Together
Sometimes, as adults, when my brother and I were visiting my parents, we’d colonise the front room TV and watch The Simpsons — a scene which would lead our dad to wonder aloud if we weren’t a bit too old to be watching cartoons. That We All Stand Together was a song written and performed by Paul McCartney for an animated bear and a chorus of amphibians made it difficult for a section of Paul’s fanbase to take it seriously. But if you were five when We All Stand Together was released, then you’ll be 43 now. There will be a part of your brain into which the lines “Play the game/Fight the fight/But what’s the point on a beautiful night?” will forever be hardwired. If Paul decides to play We All Stand Together at Glastonbury next weekend, don’t be surprised if a 37 year-old Kate Bush single finds itself toppled from the number one spot by a 38 year-old Paul McCartney one.
As with We All Stand Together, it’s all too easy to inherit other people’s disapproval of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Some people might also want to raise questions about cultural appropriation. If other Jamaican musicians living in the UK — Prince Buster, Millie, Dandy Livingstone — wanted to “do a Fela” and pay Paul a visit during the recording of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, he would have been bang to rights. After all, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a song that makes no attempt to hide its inspirations. The first months of Paul and Linda’s courtship took place amid a constant soundtrack of Jamaican rocksteady, a genre which obsessed Linda to the near exclusion of all other music. In actual fact, reggae artists such as The Heptones, Ken Lazarus and Joyce Bond all covered the song. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da deploys a trick to which Paul and George Harrison would return when faced with the challenge of taking John’s demo for Free As A Bird and turning it into a fully-fledged song. In Free As A Bird, John’s section is used in a manner more akin to an extended sample, the verses offering a bittersweet rumination on the feelings stoked up by hearing John sing that fragment. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is also a song within a song — it’s both the name of Paul’s song, the name of the song being sung by Molly in her band, and also the song she sings to her paramour, Desmond. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is surely also a projection of Paul’s hopes for his imminent marriage to Linda: “In a couple of years/They have built a home, sweet home/With a couple of kids running in the yard/Of Desmond and Molly Jones.” It’s a once-removed love letter to Linda and the records to which she introduced him. Although “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” was a phrase that Paul first heard from London-based Nigerian musican Jimmy Scott, it’s not a stretch to imagine the eternally phlegmatic Linda echoing the sentiments of a chorus which serves to remind you that life is a continuing adventure that you make meaningful by sharing every part of it with the people you love. And if Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is the hypothesis, then We Got Married, from 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt is the proof — the same sentiments parlayed from the perspective of two lovers who applied that belief into their journey as parents.
Silly Love Songs
If Silly Love Songs was an item of confectionary, it would be an acid drop; that is to say, mostly sugar, but really, what defines it is the small component of sharpness. It’s a riposte issued from the ranks of the militantly mellow; the result of years in which both critics and former bandmates accused Paul of going soft and, most damningly of all, allowing his music to go soft. We hear Paul echo the complaints of his detractors — “Some people want to fill the world/With silly love songs” — before answering their question with a question of his own, “And what’s wrong with that?” Silly Love Songs deftly swerves the mistakes made by so many era-defining stars who felt an obligation Say Important Things, and it does so with the same mischievous smile that you can all but see on Paul’s face six years later on The Girl Is Mine, when he tells Michael Jackson, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” In 1976, rock stars didn’t win critics over by saying this sort of stuff. And even now, 48 years later, the archetype of rock star as smouldering hell-raiser train-wreck still holds enough sway to keep Johnny Depp in its thrall. But if, over time, you try and adhere to the values of most of the silly love songs you hear in the radio, you won’t go far wrong.
Ebony And Ivory
Paul’s desire to be a commercial competitor in the here and now sometimes sells his songs a little short as the years go by. Ebony And Ivory is a case in point — its wafer-light arrangement belies a soft soul gem that would be hailed as an all-time masterpiece had, say, The (Detroit) Spinners done it in the style of Could It Be I’m Falling In Love. For all of that, there’s a longing in the vocals of Paul and his co-vocalist Stevie Wonder that isn’t such a far cry from one of Paddy McAloon’s latter-day expressions of forlorn utopianism. That longing finds radiates outwards from the line “…oh lord, why don’t we?” — five words that exist to tell passing aliens or future civilisations that the harmony humans have managed to achieve time and time again on a piano keyboard somehow continues to elude our species, despite the best efforts of our most gifted songwriters.
Penny Lane is perhaps the earliest example of the way Paul’s apparently lightweight songs, over time, reveal the full extent of their emotional power. Compared to its companion A-side, John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane’s nostalgia assumes an almost journalistic quality. The past depicted in Paul’s lyrical painting is so recent that the paint has yet to dry on it. In 1967, you’d have no reason to think that this was in any way a sad song. And yet, by the time I first heard the song at the end of 1982, it already felt like a memento of something irretrievable. Perhaps I wouldn’t have hastened to that conclusion so quickly if I hadn’t been watching the promotional film that accompanied the song. Strolling through their home town in their psychedelic proto-Pepper threads (it was shot in London, but I didn’t know that at the time), they didn’t just look like pop stars. They looked like dandy older brothers from a gentler age, privy to a host of in-jokes that would somehow be rendered even funnier for the fact that you didn’t always understand them. Although Strawberry Fields Forever is the Lennon song to which it’s most often compared, I think we can learn more about Paul’s maturity as a writer by comparing it to another Lennon composition, In My Life. Both great songs, but In My Life feels a little like a kitchen-sink My Way. It’s a conscious — perhaps even a self-conscious — exercise. It feels very much like something that John Lennon wants us to know about him; an audit of the distance travelled, conducted from fame’s lofty vantage point. By contrast, Penny Lane sounds like a song written without any heed to who might be listening. It’s a journey back from fame’s lofty vantage point to a place where its protagonist is once again anonymous. Penny Lane is pathos squared. A song that pauses the videotape of memory on a moment to which its author knows it can never return. The ensuing decades have turned it into a memory of a memory. If Paul didn’t know the power of Penny Lane when he created it, he certainly knew it when I interviewed him forty years later: “You know, I don’t think that’s unusual. I think you’re getting to the philosophical core of things when you say that. I think things that are happy are also intrinsically sad. They contain the seed of sadness. Let’s imagine we’re making a film, and there’s a person on a beach. It’s a very very sunny day, and the waves are lapping in. Now, that can sort of be happy or sad. It tends to depend on what music you play. Even if you play… [at this point he pretended to be a brass band playing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside]. One day, when we discover the meaning of life, that will somehow be contained within it. That happy is sad and sad is happy.”
With A Little Luck
It’s hard not to look at Paul McCartney and not believe that the eyes are the window to a person’s soul. His songwriting bond with John Lennon was forged on eye contact: sitting face to face, guitars on laps, and not letting up until another song had landed. In the recent 3,2,1 documentary series looking back at some of his most celebrated songs, Rick Rubin’s most effective interview technique was to merely stare at Paul and interrupt as little as possible. The more he stared, the longer Paul spoke. When Chas Hodges from Chas & Dave told me the story about the time Paul played him a test pressing of Revolver, his main memory involved Paul staring at him the entire time the record was playing. You don’t end up with your eyebrows halfway up your forehead, as Paul has, without having done a lot of staring. With A Little Luck provides some insight into what it must be like to have Paul directing 100 per cent of his attention directly on you. It’s a Macca pep talk softened by the milky alkalinity of its smooth state-of-the-art FM pop production. “The willow turns his back on inclement weather,” reasons Paul, “And if he can do it/Then we can do it.” How like Paul to take a tree forever long associated with misery and turn it into a symbol of optimism and fortitude. To hear him sing “There is no end to what we can do together,” is to realise what it was that made musical ingenue Linda believe that she could be in a band with Paul McCartney FROM THE BEATLES!! and hold her own. And she did. So much of the sound that sets Wings apart from their contemporaries is the way Denny Laine and Linda’s vocals converge around Paul’s voice. It’s as much a hallmark of their sound as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s harmonies were to The Beatles. And With A Little Luck is his Stareway To Heaven.
Mrs Vandebilt is a note to self; an affirmation of the values and camaraderie that helped The Beatles build a shell around them that would repel all malignant forces until the day John Lennon went for dinner with Allen Klein. In The Lyrics — the two volume songbook deep dive published at the end of 2021 — Paul refers to Mrs Vandebilt as a symbol of a sort of success that holds no intrinsic interest for him; the “bothersome” aspects of being rich: “For example, I’ve got a little sailboat which I can sail by myself. I can get in it and out of the water by myself. Just the other day someone reminded me that it was really a kid’s boat. I went, ‘Okay, I’m a kid.’ I’m not sure if they would understand that I don’t want a bigger boat, the kind ‘adults’ might have. If I have a bigger boat I’ll need a crew, and I don’t want a crew.” Detractors might suggest that it’s easy for former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney to disdain conspicuous wealth from his rarefied position — but not long before he wrote Mrs Vandebilt, he was a Beatle in exile, his assets frozen, living a frugal existence with Linda, Heather and Stella in a dilapidated Scottish farmhouse. Mrs Vandebilt is a song about getting lost in the game; of having endless options and forgetting which of them would actually make you happy. The beliefs on which it’s predicated still hold true. Faced with the restrictions imposed upon him by the first and second lockdowns, Paul recorded McCartney III alone in isolation. He’s endured extremes of unimaginable fame and abject loss that would have broken many of us long before the eightieth birthday he celebrates this weekend. Every word in Mrs Vandebilt has been earned several times over.
If you think about The Beatles’ collective experience as a plane journey, it’s tempting to view Abbey Road’s Side Two medley as an emergency landing undertaken in the heaviest of weather. In those final minutes, we’re being blown all over the place. The passengers are freaking out, and so are some members of the cabin crew. Whether we can execute any sort of smooth landing before the fuselage breaks apart is anyone’s guess. We now know from Peter Jackson’s Get Back that Paul McCartney was the only person prepared to pilot the plane. And amid all this chaos, The End represents the final approach leading to the moment of touchdown. The extended rock-out section further escalates that sense of extreme jeopardy before giving way to a pay-off of devastating philosophical acuity: “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” In the plane, this would surely be the moment everyone cheers and hugs the person sitting next to them, perhaps distracting Lennon from the enormity of Paul’s final utterance. Just a year earlier after returning from Rishikesh, Lennon joked to his closest confidante that he’d sidled up to the Maharishi in the hope that “he’d slip me the answer.” But was there anything the Maharishi could have possibly told him that would have imparted a deeper truth than the closing words of The End?